My experience during PhD interview/s in India
Updated: Sep 15, 2022
I qualified CSIR NET on my 9th attempt. Yes, it took a lot of patience and perseverance with immense hard work. However, I was lost after the results were announced as I had no idea of how to start preparing for the PhD interviews. So, here I list down my experience with PhD interviews and what can be an ideal strategy to prepare for the same.
My CSIR NET June 2017 result was declared on 30th November 2017. Sadly, I had to wait several months since the last date to fill the form for the upcoming PhD academic session, i.e., January 2018 was closed. So, in these six months, I worked on my basics, did networking and looked for labs/projects which matched my areas of interest.
From the written exams (mostly CSIR), I realized that the three most important units that one should be thorough with are Biochemistry, Cell biology, and Molecular biology (BCM). Therefore, I started revising these units and getting into each detail to conceptualize the basics. I also got an idea that somehow, I am good with biochemistry, which can be my strong point. Likewise, it's good to prepare for topics other than BCM that you find interesting or are your strength.
In April 2018, several institutes started releasing their PhD admission forms. This phase can be a bit overwhelming.
So, begin sorting institutes as per your convenience since there will be clashes in interview dates and traveling across the country can be a task.
In parallel, start contacting the lab members, alumni, or students studying in the respective institutes. The best way to do so is by contacting through LinkedIn. The lab's research interest and progress in terms of paper are understandable from the lab website (in most cases). However, the primary aim of communicating here is to know how the Project Investigator is as a person and to understand the lab environment. Selecting a PI/Guide or a research lab is similar to choosing a life partner and also it is crucial since your future will be dependent. Remember there will be pros and cons with each lab; therefore, make a list as per your priorities.
Once you start applying to various institutes, go through the project list and prepare the basics specific to the projects that interest you. For example, if you are interested in a project related to immune functioning in cancer cells, studying topics like hallmarks of cancer, immune therapy, etc., can be beneficial. In this case, communicating with lab members and seniors can be helpful as they can direct you to topics of importance.
Personal experience –
My first interview was in the BSBE department of IIT Bombay in the first week of May 2018. It was a three-stage long interview schedule, the first being a written exam. The pattern was similar to that of GATE, where we were asked questions from the following sections – Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, Computer Applications and Human physiology. The reason for including such a varied array of these subjects was because IIT promotes a lot more interdisciplinary science as compared to other research institutes. Therefore, different projects require candidates specialized in some specific field. Among these subjects, we were asked to attempt any two. Though biology and human physiology should have been the most probable choice, I opted for Chemistry and Biology. Since almost all the questions asked in the human physiology section seemed alien. Those were more related to what is taught in the MBBS course than what we study for our CSIR exam. On the other hand, questions from the chemistry section were basic, and 80% were related to biochemistry. I scored well and qualified in the written exam. The first interview round was subject-based, where I was asked my topic of interest. Biochemistry being my strength, I mentioned proteins and enzymes. In an hour-long interview, I was asked questions from enzyme kinetics, competitive/noncompetitive inhibition and protein structure. Post the interview, I was confident and I did qualify for the second round. By the final round of interview, the starting ~ 500 candidates were sorted to 30. Somehow, I was way more distracted and nervous during my second round of interview. I almost got a mini heart attack when I saw all the PIs from the department sitting in the interview hall. As the first question was bowled towards me, I got blank. I still don't clearly remember the question, but it was related to recombination and cross-over. I was unable to answer the first question and my morale dropped. The next question was related to protein purification and though I answered the question correctly, I was not confident. Post these few more questions were asked, to which I responded haphazardly. As I exited the hall, I knew I had lost this game and may not qualify for the interview.
Next was my interview schedule at Kusuma school of biological sciences, IIT Delhi, in the last week of May. Here, the first round was a written exam with a mix of questions from Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics. There was a single interview round post this. I was able to qualify for the written exam and waited for around three hours for my interview. Compared to arrangements made in IIT Bombay, IIT Delhi was less organized (I even missed my return train due to a delay in the interview). I was asked to tell my research interest and the projects I was interested in from the list. Since I had a basic idea about molecular virology and three labs were working on the same prospect, I went ahead with this. Surprisingly I was asked questions related to optics and X-ray crystallography. I was not prepared for the same; however, I gave some basic answers. I was very calm and tried to put as much information as possible during the interview. I even cracked a joke and the interview panel praised my wittiness. Overall in comparison to my interview at IIT Bombay, I felt I had not performed well. However, to my surprise, I was selected in IIT Delhi. The positive attitude with which I defended myself during the interview helped me impress the panelist.
Though I was selected in IIT Delhi, I was keen to pursue cancer biology. Additionally, the load of paying heavy tuition and hostel fee in IIT made me rethink the institute and lab I should prefer for my PhD. Therefore, I moved further for my interview at ACTREC. ACTREC is known as a premier institute working in cancer biology in parallel to it being the biggest cancer hospital in India. In ACTREC, there is no written exam for those who have qualified national-level examinations such as NET or JGEEBILS. There is a direct interview comprising two rounds. One round mostly being dedicated to your Masters dissertation project and the other is based on your fundamental and technical understanding of different areas in biology. In my first round, I was asked questions related to hallmarks of cancer, cancer diagnosis, cancer statistics and questions from techniques like crystallization, PCR, and FACS. I answered most of the questions except the hallmark of cancer and statistics. The second round was supposed to be a dissertation-based interview. However, since my dissertation work wasn't that exciting, I was asked the topic of interest. I again played on my strength and told proteins. The questions started from amino acid titration curve to protein structure and further diverted to molecular biology, where I was asked questions related to DNA polymerase and cloning. Among the varied range of questions, I managed to answer almost all of them and post the interview was confident that I would get the position. Finally, the results were announced and I was selected in ACTREC and here my PhD journey started.
Edited by – Ms. Debashmita Sarkar